Two years on from their thrilling run to a UEFA Futsal EURO 2012 fourth place on home territory in front of record crowds, Croatia are back in the finals having made it through qualification for the first time since 2001.
They could hardly have asked for a harder start to Group D on 29 January, taking on holders Spain who beat them 10-0 in qualifying, but coach Mato Stanković – who has masterminded Croatia's improvement since returning home from Libya in August 2010 – believes his side are starting to challenge Europe's best.
UEFA.com: Are you satisfied with your preparations for Futsal EURO?
Mato Stanković: My players have done all I asked of them. I gave everyone a chance. I tried all the players and now have a better idea of how to play at EURO. We had a difficult test against EURO hosts Belgium – we won one match and drew the other, although we played without two key players in Dario Marinović and Tihomir Novak. We have done everything we can to be completely ready and fit for the big tournament.
UEFA.com: What are your expectations for EURO?
Stanković: I am not a man who likes to talk big. I like to stay calm and focus on the team and the performances without predicting big results or miracles. We are going to play our best and try to take any opportunity we get. This is the first time in 13 years we have reached the EURO through qualifying and I think we are returning to where we belong – the top level of European futsal.
UEFA.com: Do you have any chance of matching the last-four finish from 2012?
Stanković: We must be realistic – we know what we are capable of and we know where we belong, and that's not in the semi-finals. We have to be honest about that. At the last EURO we were the home side, we had a fantastic crowd, and we took the opportunities that came our way. I won't say we can never do that again, only that our natural place is not among the four best teams in Europe. But if the chance comes up again, we will take it and we can do it.
UEFA.com: Your first match is against Spain. What do you expect?
Spain are a team from another world for most other countries. They are better than most other sides by four to seven goals – and if they have a good day it will be ten. If their opponents are playing fantastically and Spain are not in the mood that margin will still be two or three goals, so it's hard to expect anything against them. But what kind of coach would I be if I went into any match expecting to lose? We will do our best and hope for something sensational.
UEFA.com: Your second game against Czech Republic could be crucial.
Stanković: It's not good that we are playing them after Spain. Something interesting happened with Slovenia at the last EURO – they played great against Spain in their opening game but lost 4-2, and they then went down against Ukraine without much of a fight. It's hard to predict what will happen after that first match against Spain, so we need to be focused on that. We don't have a long list of quality players so we have to make a good plan for all the matches.
UEFA.com: Are you on the way to making Croatia one of the top European teams?
Stanković: We are doing a good job, but of course we are limited in some areas. The Croatian Football Federation (HNS) is helping a lot – providing us with excellent working conditions, but we don't have a strong league and it's not easy to compete with the teams that have strong and wealthy leagues with a much broader base of players. But we are doing the best we can and the results are there to see.
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